“When does a place become a home?” It’s a question asked by Ammir Haj Ahmad as Safi, a refugee from Syria who is one of the residents of The Jungle. That was the name given to the extraordinary, self-governing community built on landfill in Calais, France that for 11 months became makeshift home to thousands of migrants, including hundreds of unaccompanied minors, fleeing more than a dozen countries. Safi serves as unofficial host and occasional narrator of “The Jungle,” a remarkable production that attempts to bring the community back to life. From its inventive staging to its authentic casting and vivid setting, “The Jungle,” which arrives at St Ann’s Warehouse intact from its acclaimed run in London, shows what theater can do at its best to open us up to a world we otherwise ignore.
Miriam Buether’s set re-creates the Afghan restaurant that was at the camp – to which the late London Times food critic AA Gill gave four stars – presided over (in Brooklyn) by proud, welcoming restaurateur Salar Malikzai (Ben Turner), who owned an eatery in Karz, a village near Kandahar. We sit on benches placed around connected narrow tables that crisscross the room, most of which double as the runway-sized stage – which means we are often looking up at the characters. At times, the only lighting is a flashlight that one characters shine on another. Much like the camp in Calais itself, each area of the room is named after one of the countries that the residents fled. I sat in Sudan. There was a bottle of ketchup in front of me, though no food was served.
Food is for sale during intermission just outside the restaurant, inside a geodesic dome lined with photographs and signs that try to re-create the atmosphere of the Jungle. One sign is entitled “Workshops Today,” next to little cardboard clocks with the various times: “Kung Fu with Yasin. Theatre with Kneehigh. Music with Mohamed.” This was the very dome in which then-recent Oxford University graduates and writing partners Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson set up their Good Chance Theater at the camp – named after a comment they heard regularly from residents: There’s a good chance I’ll make it to England today (smuggled in by truck or ferry). “The Jungle,” an outgrowth of their experience in The Jungle, is the Joes’ first full-length play.
It begins and ends with a scene dramatizing the destruction of the camp by French police using teargas and bulldozers in February, 2016. There is little effort to shape the two-plus hours in-between into a conventional plot. The focus is on the characters, clothed in red-and-white keffiyehs or knit skullcaps, t-shirts or military surplus jackets. They are portrayed by 20 cast members, some of whom were themselves refugees at the camp (and participants in the Good Chance Theater.) Through them we get a glimpse of what it was like in this sprawling temporary town, complete with restaurants, shops, schools, mosques and churches. “Look at this place!” says Paula (Jo McInnes), one of the Jungle’s several British volunteers. “Give people a chance, a hammer, some nails, build a city in a day!”
“Jerusalem was a place like this once,” says Derek (Dominic Rowan), another volunteer.
The show makes clear the joy that some felt in this place that had become their home. At various times, we see the characters sing, dance, drum, strum a guitar or pluck a banjo, play soccer, even juggle oranges.
Such exuberance, we learn, is provisional, abruptly interrupted by the grim reality of their lives, the present only an occasional respite from their gruesome pasts. A dead boy is discovered at the beach. The TV monitors at the four corners of the restaurant, which were showing a Bollywood movie (with the sound turned off) as we took our seats, is used during the play to present alarmed news reports about the Jungle and about the latest terrorist attacks in France, which were mistakenly tied to the Jungle, helping explain the French fear and loathing of the newcomers in their midst. (It’s perhaps needless to say that “The Jungle” wholly adopts the perspective of the refugees and their supporters.)
Fifteen-year-old Norullah (Mohammed Amiri) phones his mother back in Afghanistan every week, but he tells her he made it to London and is staying with friends, too ashamed of the truth. Seventeen-year-old Okot (John Pfumojena) from the Sudan gets into fights with Norullah, sometimes over food, and can’t wait to leave The Jungle. “I have one dream only. To stand on white cliffs of Dover.” (Dover is some 25 miles by ferry from Calais.) Okot likes to sing along with the ringtone of his phone, “(There’ll be Bluebirds Over) The White Cliffs of Dover.”
In a harrowing and deeply moving series of scenes, Safi and Beth (Rachel Redford) discover that Okot has been arrested and beaten nearly into unconsciousness. Beth harangues and threatens the French guard (Alexander Devrient) into releasing Okot. “Go! And if I see him again, you won’t.” Once “safe,” Okot takes off his shirt to reveal his many scars, and tells Beth his story – what life was like in Darfur (“the most beautiful place in world”), and the horrors of the genocide. Then he tells the excruciating tale of his escape, a journey involve torture, extortion, depravity, death. The other refugees – Safi, Salar, Ali, Norullah, Hossein, Mohammed, Mahlet, Maz, Hamid, Omid, Felah, Salar – add a line here and there, telling Okot’s tale along with him, as if it’s their own as well.
“How did you survive?” Beth asks, shaken.
“We didn’t,” says Helene (Nahel Tzegai.)
“But you’re here now.”
“This is not us,” says Okot.
“We’re different now,” says Safi. “New.”
And though they consider themselves dead, they say, they have something to give.
“This journey,” Okot says. “This story.”
Click on any photograph by Teddy Wolff to see it enlarged.
Also check out: When Does a Place Become Home?, a photo exhibition co-produced with United Photo Industries, on display in the St. Ann’s lobby during the engagement of The Jungle. It features the photographs of six artists and photojournalists currently working on the front lines of the world’s migrant crisis, from the original Calais jungle to Serbia to our US Southern borders: Getty special correspondent John Moore, visual journalist Griselda San Martin, photographer and filmmaker Miguel Amoretegui, refugee photographer Abdul Saboor, conceptual artist Omar Imam, and photographer Sarah Hickson.
St. Ann’s Warehouse
Written by Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson
Directed by Stephen Daldry and Justin Martin
Set design by Miriam Buether, costume design by Catherine Kodicek, lighting design
by Jon Clark, sound design by Paul Arditti, composition by John Pfumojena, video design by Tristan Shepherd and Duncan Mclean
Cast: Mohammad Amiri as Norullah, Alexander Devrient as Henri/Yasin, Elham Ehsas as Muzamil (Maz), Trevor Fox as Boxer, Milan Ghobsheh as Omid, Ammar Haj Ahmad as Safi, Alex Lawther as Sam, Jo McInnes as Paula, Yasin Moradi as Hamid, Jonathan Nyati as Mohammed, John Pfumojena as Okot, Rachel Redford as Beth, Dominic Rowan as Derek, Rachid Sabitri as Ali, Mohamed Sarrar as Omar, Martin Shamoonpour as Hossein,Bisserat Tseggai,Ben Turner as Salar, Nahel Tzegai as Helene, Vera Gurpinar or Annika Mehta as Little Amal
Tickets: $36 to $76
Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes, including one intermission
“The Jungle” is on stage through January 27, 2019